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One of the hardest things for us to comprehend is what it really feels like to be someone else. I have known my wife for over 40 years; yet, although I have learned to understand that there are certain things that give her great pleasure and others that cause her grief, there are still areas where I can only guess at what she’s really feeling.
We try to empathize by reminding ourselves of personal experiences that may have given rise to similar feelings. But all too often these are not equal to the situation, or the memory too faded to be of sufficient help. Yet at such times, the thing a person usually craves most is not advice: but that simple sense that here is someone who can truly understand how they feel.
The problem is, I can’t feel what you feel because I’m not connected to you the way I am to my own body. If I bang my finger, I am in agony: but if you break your leg I can’t feel it. I can only try to empathize.
For us, that is probably just as well. If we did literally feel the pain of those around us it would, I think, be more than any of us could handle.
Nevertheless, there is someone who can truly understand.
God is Connected
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. (Psalm 139:4 NIV)
Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:24)
The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15:3)
For in him we live, and move, and have our being… (Acts 17:28)
We cannot feel another person’s feelings, because we are physically limited and have no direct connection to them. Even to share our thoughts, we must use signs or words. But God is everywhere and perceives even our unspoken thoughts. He is not just able to see you: He can see through your eyes. He hears what you hear and He feels what you feel.
When you suffer, He suffers.
The Bible contains a striking example of this principle.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. (Psalm 51:4 NIV).
These words are from King David’s prayer when he has just been confronted by Nathan the prophet over his affair with Bathsheba. David, having caught sight of this beautiful woman, had misused his authority to summon her to his palace. This was in spite of the fact she was the wife of Uriah, a trusted and courageous officer in David’s army, who was at that very moment out risking his life in David’s service. When she became pregnant, David first tried to make it look as if Uriah were the father. When that plan failed, He sent orders that Uriah should be deliberately sacrificed in battle. (For the full story see 2 Samuel 11:2 – 12:25.)
So this verse used to really bug me. I could see that the big issue, as far as God was concerned, was David’s betrayal of Uriah. But how on earth could this be a sin against God alone? What about poor Uriah? If he had known what David, his king, to whom he was so devoted, was doing behind his back – or if in his last moments, as he lay dying on the battlefield, he had known that this was on David’s express orders, which Uriah had himself carried to the commander of David’s army – what agonies would this have caused him?
But here’s what makes this story so significant. Uriah could feel no pain of betrayal in his death because he did not know what David had done. But God knew it and felt it; and He took it just as personally as if the deed had been done to himself. And David, once God had confronted him with the enormity of what he had done, also realised this; and so uttered this extraordinary prayer, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight.’
Note that this is not to say that God is normally the only victim of our misdeeds. The Bible contains plenty of teaching about accepting responsibility for the effects of our actions on others, and on making restitution to them as far as possible. But what it does show is how completely He feels our pain – even more fully, at times, than we do ourselves. Jesus makes a similar point in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46; ‘inasmuch as you did (or didn’t) do it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.’
Every joy you’ve ever felt, He has felt and rejoiced with you. And every injury and insult you ever suffered, He suffered also. Not only so, but He also felt and understood all the frustration and pain that drove those who hurt you to become what they were and do what they did. What must it be like, as God, to actually feel all the hopes, fears, joys and agonies of every human being on this planet? I cannot even begin to imagine: but, fortunately, I am not expected to.
Connection is a Two-way Street
When my children were first born they were incapable of understanding who I was or how I felt about them: but as they grew, it was such a delight to see that sense of relationship develop, and to have them throw their arms around my neck and say, ‘I love you, Daddy.’ I did not actually do very much to bring them into the world. My wife did much more: yet both of us were essentially spectators to an amazing process over which we had very little direct control. Yet those bonds of mutual interdependence have caused me to invest much of my own life into them; and, even though they are independent now, they remain incredibly important to me.
I also had a dog once that was born with both hips malformed. I had to authorise two drastic operations that would leave it crippled for months at a time: but with an ultimate prospect of a long and active life. During those months, I watched this puppy hobble pitifully about the place, and what I had done tore at my heart. He always dreaded going to the vet afterwards (though he never showed a trace of mistrust towards me for taking him there). I longed to be able to explain to him why I had done what I did: but all I could do was comfort him until the time came when he could finally leap like a jackrabbit to catch his beloved frisbee.
In both cases, I found I had far more than just a desire to understand, observe and input into their lives. What I sought above all was to have a 2-way relationship of mutual love and understanding. My own ability to understand and shape their lives was limited: yet to the extent that my life was bound up with theirs I found that I had this desire not just to understand how they felt, but to be able to meaningfully communicate with them.
I never was able to explain to my dog, of course; though we enjoyed many fun-filled years together. But my relationship with my children continues to deepen as we now share their experiences of the joys and trials of parenthood.
Is it not then reasonable to think that God would similarly desire a meaningful 2-way relationship with those creatures to whom he has given the capacity for conscious awareness, understanding and love? And is it not also reasonable to conclude that a God who is able to know our every thought must have the capacity to carry on such a relationship with anyone who desires it?
Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yes, these may forget, yet I will not forget you! (Isaiah, 49:15)
Jesus, in his famous parable of the Prodigal Son, portrays God as the father, spurned by his son, who nonetheless continues to watch and hope for his return. Until one day, seeing him in the distance, he threw his personal dignity to the winds ‘… and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him,’ (Luke 15:20).
Will You Accept the Connection?
In the past, if you had no money for a phone call you could call the operator; who then called the person you wanted to speak to, explained who was calling, and asked, ‘Will you accept the connection?’ There was a cost involved (though usually the benefit far outweighed the charge): so the call was never connected without the recipient’s consent.
Nothing can ever prevent God from knowing all about you: but the choice about having a 2-way relationship is yours. There is a cost. It involves learning to see things the way God sees them – and that can be hard at times. But the benefits far outweigh the cost. And God himself has paid a far higher price than I have discussed here to make this possible for us. But that is a subject for another posting…